Rensselaer Research Review Winter 2009-10
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Researchers Using Science To Decode the Secrets of Olympic Skeleton Sliding
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* Olympic Seleton Sliding
Skeleton is rigorous on an athlete’s body — the vibrations and bodily stress are so intense that even Olympic contenders usually cannot slide more than four times per day, making it difficult to collect data.
Olympic skeleton athletes hit the ice in Vancouver, where one-hundredths of a second can dictate the difference between victory and defeat.

Using state-of-the-art flow measurements, engineering professor Timothy Wei and students at Rensselaer are employing science and technology to help the U.S. skeleton team trim track times and gain an edge over other sliders.

“Not much is known about the actual mechanics of skeleton, so we developed a unique suite of tools to help pull back the curtain a bit,” said Wei, head of the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering, who has previously worked with U.S. Olympic swimming coaches and athletes. “Even in the short time since developing the system, we have learned a whole lot more about how the athlete’s suit, helmet, body movements, and positioning affect aerodynamics.”

“The real-time aerodynamics work that Rensselaer has provided for us has helped to fine-tune our athletes’ body positions and equipment in a way that we’ve never experienced before,” said USA Skeleton Technology Coordinator Steve Peters. “These new concepts will give our athletes the data they need to remain competitive with the rest of the world.”

Lying face down, and hitting speeds of more than 70 mph, skeleton athletes maneuver their sleds down an icy, mostly covered track rife with twists and turns. Skeleton sleds feature no steering or braking mechanisms, so body control and balance are critical for navigating the tracks. A relatively young sport, skeleton was permanently added to the Olympic program in 2002. Skeleton is rigorous on an athlete’s body — the vibrations and bodily stress are so intense that even Olympic contenders usually cannot slide more than four times per day, making it difficult to collect data.

So Wei set out to build a system that accurately simulated an actual skeleton run, while collecting as much data as possible. The professor understood that the more drag, or wind resistance, an athlete creates, the slower he or she is going to slide, so Wei needed to find a way to examine all the different variables: the clothing, headgear, and body position of sliders, as well as the skeleton sled itself. Studying drag requires wind, and the skeleton sled was slightly too large to fit into either of Rensselaer’s two wind tunnels. The jet of air exiting the exhaust vent of the wind tunnel, however, worked perfectly.

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“Using Science To Decode
the Secrets of Olympic Skeleton Sliding”
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